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Deadly Listeria Outbreaks: 5 Ways Food Companies Can Protect Themselves From Contamination

Last year, the FDA issued more than 45 safety alerts due to Listeria outbreaks, resulting in thousands of recalled food products. While fresh produce shippers were some of the hardest hit, the entire food supply chain is vulnerable. Not only does a Listeria outbreak affect growers and manufacturers; it negatively impacts packaging suppliers, retailers, transportation companies, and consumers.

What is Listeria?

Listeria is a dangerous type of bacteria that originates from soil, water, some animals, and even humans. Most likely to be found in raw milk and cheeses, cold cuts and smoked meats, and fresh fruits and vegetables, the bacteria tends to cause healthy people only minor symptoms, if any. However, the most virulent forms can lead to disabling illness and even death. The elderly, young, and those with compromised immune systems run the greatest risk (Foodsafety.gov).

A Threat to the Food Industry                                                                                                        

Listeria is troublesome for food companies, especially those connected to the fresh produce industry. The bacteria can be found in an estimated 7 percent of all produce growing areas, and it only takes a low dose of Listeria cells to cause infectious disease (Food Safety News). Unlike other bacteria, it thrives in cold environments and wet, hard-to-clean places such as drains and food processing machinery. Condensation, drips, and water-based processes create opportunity for this slow-growing, resistant bacteria too. Listeria incubates in victims for weeks before symptoms appear, making it difficult to pinpoint a source. When Listeria hitches a ride from the farm to shipping pallets, and eventually into a processing plant, only toxic chemicals, heat, or pasteurization will kill it, and food recalls become unavoidable (Foodsafety.gov).  

Prevention is critical to reducing the chance of outbreaks, but Listeria’s omnipresence makes this a complex task for food companies. Food safety experts encourage a rigorous approach, taking the following steps:

1. Know your risk level. Turning a blind eye to the problem is perhaps the greatest risk to food companies, which often learn of the Listeria entrenchment when someone reports an illness. Understanding the issue empowers food companies to create a sanitation program and take action before an outbreak occurs (Food Safety Magazine).  

2. Safeguard equipment and facilities. Once a sanitation program is in place, equipment and facilities must align with it to keep Listeria at bay. While employee hand-washing is a start, industry best practices call for installing seamless, epoxy-coated flooring and walls, sealing equipment feet to the floor, using seamless welds, and replacing trench drains with removable box or can drains to make cleaning easier and more effective. Establishing special routes for employee foot traffic, color-coding uniforms to distinguish food handlers from other employees, and designating pallet jacks and forklifts for inside or outside use will create boundaries that keep Listeria away from the places where food products are most vulnerable (Food Safety Magazine).             

3. Implement regular testing programs. After developing standard operating procedures for cleaning, validating the process on a scheduled, ongoing basis will detect the bacteria’s presence early. For example, some experts recommend an iterative validation process that involves swabbing equipment, operating the equipment, re-swabbing, and then cleaning according to standard operating procedures, and swabbing again before sanitizing. If the equipment passes swab tests regularly over time, the process can eventually graduate to spot-checks. If problems persist, management can address them before an outbreak occurs (Food Safety Magazine).    

4. Sanitize all surfaces that contact food. In particular, pallets can be a source of cross-contamination because companies frequently transport produce, raw meat, and raw poultry on the same pallets without proper cleaning between uses. Recently, the National Consumers League conducted a study and found Listeria present on 3 percent of the pallets they tested (National Consumers League). Less porous, plastic pallets fared better than wood; but for pallets stored outside, weather, insects, and animal droppings can create conditions for bacteria to breed, regardless of the material.  

5. Work with partners who put food safety first. From suppliers to transportation companies, the supply chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Regulations and inspections enforce food safety during production at farms and factories, as well as in retail stores and restaurants, but the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) that will require stricter transportation standards is still in its infancy. Partners who invest in a food safety culture already have key processes in place, saving time and money, and reducing risk across the entire supply chain.    

Capstone’s commitment to food safety includes deep expertise in emerging FSMA requirements, automated food safety protocols, customizable safety controls, and a pledge to work with only the best carriers. From strict temperature monitoring and sanitary pallet requirements to rigid inspections and detailed loading checklists, our food-grade equipment standards protect valuable food products throughout their journey. Contact us to learn more.